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Truman

That famous photograph of Harry S. Truman holding up a newspaper with the erroneous headline “Dewey Defeats Truman” was taken in St. Louis the day after the 1948 presidential election. Truman became our nation’s 33rd President in April 1945, when FDR died in office at the end of World War II. In short order and on Truman’s watch, we defeated Nazi Germany and then Japan and brought our boys home. But Truman had not been very popular during his first four years in office. Public opinion polls, the press and his fellow politicians all projected that he was going to lose. When the early returns on election night indicated as much, the editors of the Chicago Daily Tribune (now the Chicago Tribune) printed their headline, which turned out to be wrong, giving Truman something to laugh about.

Official portrait of Harry S. Truman by Greta Kempton painted in 1945 — the year our nation’s 33rd president first asked Congress to pass universal health care for every American.

 

That fall, the man from Independence, Missouri, ever confident, had campaigned energetically across large swaths of the country, largely from the back of a train, and wherever he went he drew impressive crowds. Even when his train made whistle-stop stops in small towns in the wee hours, large masses turned out to hear this down-to-earth, man-on-the street kind of man. In many ways he was a man of the people. He knew what it was like to put in a hard day’s work. He had been a farmer, and a small business owner. He was a war veteran too. He was not a great orator, but he always spoke honestly and directly, without equivocation or trying to play both sides of the coin. Famously, he never blamed others.

Before he became Vice President and then President, Truman served in the United States Senate, where he developed a reputation as a “New Deal Democrat.” As President, he was even more progressive in many respects than FDR had been. He called for a higher minimum wage, and proposed increased federal spending for education, housing and public works projects. He also called for universal health care for all Americans. He called these proposals the “Fair Deal.” Truman was also better than FDR had been on civil rights. He laid the groundwork for the desegregation of the U.S. military, and he prohibited discrimination based on race for those applying for civil service jobs.

On the world stage, Truman supported the formation of the United Nations and NATO, and he pledged support to countries electing their own leaders in free elections. This policy, known as the Truman Doctrine, was intended as a check on the growing influence of the Soviet Union. Truman was also responsible for the Marshall Plan, which provided postwar economic aid to Western Europe, and the Berlin Airlift, which delivered food and other supplies to the Western part of Berlin that was surrounded by the Soviets. He recognized the state of Israel upon its founding in 1948.

“Truman” by David McCullough

 

It was also Truman who made the fateful decision to drop nuclear bombs on Japan. And he sent our troops to Korea, which would eventually cost countless thousands of American lives. What I did not realize before reading “Truman,” the masterful, thousand-page biography by David McCullough, is how much worse these things would have turned out to be, had it not been for the bespectacled man in the White House with a sign on his desk that said “The Buck Stops Here.” When Truman made a decision, it was only after careful deliberation about what he thought was best for the country. If that made him less popular, so be it.

It was toward the end of his time in office that Truman fired General Douglas MacArthur, thus plunging his already low public approval even lower. At the time this was shocking. But with the passage of time many, including me, believe that MacArthur was a dangerous demagogue who needed to be fired. It took a man like Truman to have the guts to dismiss him. The general had threatened to use nuclear weapons against China. And he interfered with Truman’s diplomatic efforts to bring the fighting in Korea to an end. By relieving MacArthur, Truman solidified one of the most important principles of our Constitution, which is civilian control of the military.

Another of Truman’s achievements was the formation of the Atomic Energy Commission, which is now the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, which put control of atomic weapons and energy in elected civilian hands, rather than the military.

When he left office Truman was unpopular, but over time his standing in the eyes of the public began to improve, to the point at which, today, when surveys are conducted, he usually ranks in the upper tier.

Truman was born in 1884 and hailed from Independence, Missouri. Today that’s part of the Kansas City metropolitan area, but in Truman’s day it was a completely different city. After graduating from high school he attended a business college but did not graduate. Instead he took a number of jobs, including railroad timekeeper and bank clerk. He also worked for his father on a farm in Grandview, Missouri.

When the United States entered World War I in 1917 Truman was old enough that he could have stayed home, but instead he enlisted and went to France as an officer, where his talents as a leader emerged. Truman served in the war with bravery and initiative. He fought in three battles and later received medals.

Upon returning from the war, he opened a men’s clothing store in Kansas City with a business partner, which was successful until an economic downturn forced it out of business. But Truman paid off his store’s debts over the course of many years.

After the store went out of business Truman entered politics, as an elected county judge, with the help of the Pendergrasts, who were a well-connected political family. Truman himself was not corrupt, but the Pendergrasts were involved in all manner of shady dealings and Truman’s association with them caused grief for him for decades to come. Being county judge was an administrative job, not the kind of judge who presides over trials. Truman was responsible for building roads. And rather than awarding the contracts to friends of the Pendergrasts, he hired construction crews who could actually do the work and do it well and under budget. The roads in that part of the state had never been better.

In 1934 Truman was elected to the United States Senate, and he was re-elected in 1940. His crowning achievement as a Senator was his work as chairman of the Committee on Military Affairs, which became known as the Truman Committee. The goal was to root out waste, fraud and abuse in the military. Truman and his fellow committee members held hearings and made visits to military bases. But there was no grandstanding the way many other Senate committees conducted themselves. The Truman Committee took its business seriously, ultimately saving our nation untold billions of dollars. In my view, the work of Truman and his committee proved to be absolutely vital to our country’s ability to achieve victory in World War II.

In 1944, when FDR ran for his unprecedented fourth term, he was in failing health and party insiders decided to dump Vice President Henry Wallace from the ticket because he was considered too far left, and replace him with Truman. According to the book, Truman did not want to do this but was strong-armed by FDR into going along with the plan. As fate would have it, Truman was Vice President for just 82 days before FDR died and he was summoned to the White House to take the oath of office.

Here are some additional notes about our nation’s 33rd President:

  • He played the piano.
  • The S. was a middle initial only, in honor of both is paternal and maternal grandfathers — Anderson Ship Truman and Solomon Young, respectively.
  • As a boy Truman had eyeglasses, which made him an oddball in rural Missouri.
  • He married Bess Wallace, and they had a single child, a daughter named Margaret.
  • Truman’s heroes were Thomas Jefferson, Andrew Jackson and Robert E. Lee.
  • Both before and during his presidency, Truman traveled extensively throughout the country.
  • He was an avid reader who was thoroughly educated about American history. He knew all about the Civil War, as well, including its many generals and all the battles and who won each and how.
  • When he was president, Truman had four Secretaries of State: Edward Stettinius Jr. (whom he inherited from FDR), James F. Byrnes, George Marshall and Dean Acheson. That third Secretary of State gave his name to the Marshall Plan, although it was really Truman’s plan but Truman wanted Marshall’s name on it to get it through Congress.
  • During his presidency Truman conducted a much-needed gut renovation of the White House, and while the construction was under way he and his wife and daughter lived across the street, in Blair House, for several years.
  • When Truman was staying in Blair House, he was the target of an assassination attempt by two Puerto Rican radicals. A police officer was killed in the gunfight between the would-be assassins, the police and the secret service.
  • When Truman was president his daughter, Margaret, embarked upon a career as a singer, with modest success. At one point Truman got in a huge public fight with a critic who had written her a bad review. In an interesting plot twist, years later that same newspaper critic was one of the few journalists who came to Truman’s defense when he fired MacArthur!
  • After Truman left the presidency and returned to Missouri, he had no Secret Service protection, but he did receive it after JFK was killed.
  • He lived until 1972, making him the earliest president to still be alive when I was born!
  • “Give ’em Hell, Harry!” was a one-man play, later turned into a movie, in which actor James Whitmore portrays Truman, reflects on his life and re-enacts various White House encounters. When I was very young, my mother and father took me to see this movie, and I remember being really bored but my parents thoroughly enjoyed themselves.

As I mentioned, I learned so much about Truman by reading the biography by McCullough. It was a pleasure to read this book, which is a comprehensive, cradle-to-grave narrative complete with helpful photographs, notes, index and bibliography. This was a long book that seemed short, and there is much, much more in it than mentioned above. There are some laugh-out-loud anecdotes, including one about a White House staff member fixing drinks for the first family and another in which Truman, while out on a walk, tells a tree that it’s doing a good job.

“Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman

 

I followed up McCullough with a second book, “Harry S. Truman” by Margaret Truman, at 581 pages. I remember my father having a copy of this book in paperback. I found a used copy at the Strand Bookstore before the pandemic. I was slightly disappointed in Margaret Truman’s book. I thought she would write more about the family life. Instead she focused on policy, but the descriptions of meetings were so detailed that I suspected that Truman himself wrote the book, or large portions of it, to help settle scores. Just a hunch.

Anyway, if you’re interested in reading just one book about Truman and it’s between these two, I would recommend McCullough’s. As for me, someday I definitely want to read more about Truman. In my view, he was one of our nation’s very best presidents.

Mayor Pete

Mayor Pete Buttigieg book reviewHis book is titled “Shortest Way Home: One Mayor’s Challenge and a Model for America’s Future.” He was born in South Bend, Indiana, in 1982, after his parents moved there from El Paso, Texas. His father is a first-generation American who was born in Malta. He attended Harvard and graduated with honors. Then he was named a Rhodes Scholar and attended Oxford University in England. He got a job at a consulting firm, McKinsey & Co., working for various clients, but he says he did not find that work very rewarding. In 2004 he worked on John Kerry’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

In 2009 he joined the United States Navy Reserve, becoming a Lieutenant. In 2010 he ran for State Treasurer of Indiana but lost. The following year, he ran for Mayor of South bend and won with a big majority. As mayor, he focused on the local issues of importance, including modernizing the sewer system, the implementation of a 311 system, and municipal budgeting. One of his signature achievements was a “1,000 properties in 1,000 days” initiative to repair or demolish many of the city’s vacant houses. In 2014, while he was mayor, he was deployed to Afghanistan and served for one tour of duty. He took a leave of absence as mayor to fulfill his military commitment.

In 2015, after returning from active military duty and resuming his mayoral duties, he came out publicly in a column he wrote for the South Bend Tribune in which he revealed his sexual orientation to one and all. Also in 2015, he spoke out against an anti-gay Indiana state law, the Religious Freedom Restoration Act, which was signed by then Governor Mike Pence. Later that year, he was re-elected with an even larger majority.

A few more notes on Mayor Pete Buttigieg:

  • He plays the piano!
  • He’s also really smart and speaks multiple languages, although he does not brag about this in his book.
  • He met his husband, Chasten Glezman, on a dating app, and they were married in 2017.
  • Together they adopted a rescue dog and named him Truman (after the President).
  • His second term ended on January 1 of this year, so now he is former Mayor.

In his book, he talks a great deal about his hometown, which was among the hardest hit in the Rust Belt. He also reflects on the vapidity of the catchphrase used by the current occupant of the White House. In the concluding, and best, chapter of the book, he points out that what’s printed on that red hat is actually a backward-looking slogan based largely on fear. He articulates many of the feelings I have had myself about this for some time now. Therefore in today’s book report I will let the Mayor have the final words:

“There is no going back. South Bend cannot and should not rewind to the Studebaker heyday of the 1950s, just as America cannot restore the old order in which families obeyed a single, male head of household, each race had its so-called place, average weather was the same from one decade to the next, and a job was for life.

“We don’t actually want to go back. We just think we do, sometimes, when we feel more alert to losses than to gains. A sense of loss inclines us, in vulnerable moments, to view the future with an expectation of harm. But when this happens, we miss the power of a well-envisioned future to inspire us toward greatness.

“There is nothing necessarily wrong with greatness, as an aspiration, a theme, or even as the basis of a political program. The problem, politically, is that we keep looking for greatness in all the wrong places. We think we can find it in the past, dredged up from some impossible ‘again,’ when it reality it is available only to those who fix their vision on the future.

“South Bend, for all our struggles, has formed my faith in a great future.”

William L. Shirer’s ‘The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich’

The best thing that happens in this very long book is that Hitler kills himself. It comes at the end, in late April 1945. By this time the Allies, under the command of General Eisenhower, had retaken France and were advancing into Germany from the West. The Russian army was closing in on Berlin from the East, and the leader of the Third Reich was holed up in an underground bunker with military personnel, some aides, propaganda minister Joseph Goebbels and his wife and their six young children, and a few other hangers-on, including a female companion, Eva Braun, whose secret relationship with the Fuehrer had been kept from the public all this time.

With his regular army disintegrating by the day, the deranged murderous lunatic at the center of it all was ordering old men, and even boys as young as 10 years old, to fight. Some of this insanity is depicted in the Oscar-nominated movie “Jojo Rabbit,” which is in current release and is presented as a comedy even though the story is anything but funny. Hitler was cruel and evil, and he was also crazy. In the end he was telling his people that he was about to unleash secret weapons (not a nuclear bomb but rather jet fighters and rockets) that would alter the course of the war — which, by this time, he was losing decisively. Hitler had also been consulting his horoscope, which told of a big sign coming that would signal a change in the course of the war. Even when the “sign” materialized (FDR’s death), it did not change things. The war in Europe was about to end with the total defeat of Nazi Germany. Sadly, this did not come before 50 million soldiers and civilians had been killed. Among the dead were 6 million Jews, who had been murdered by racist thugs as part of an intricately planned, systematic effort at genocide.

Hitler died from a self-inflicted gunshot wound to the head, and his wife died of cyanide poisoning when she bit down on a glass capsule. Their bodies were then placed outside in a bomb crater and, as per Hitler’s instructions, doused with gasoline and burned. They had been married just a day before, in a late-night ceremony in which both bride and groom had to vow in accordance with German law that they were each of pure Aryan blood. The next day Goebbels and his wife killed their six children and then themselves. Others in the bunker either committed suicide or fled. This is depicted in the 2004 movie “Downfall,” in German with English subtitles. The German military officially surrendered a week later.

“The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich,” by William L. Shirer, is a book I had been long meaning to read, but it’s length — more than 1,200 pages including notes and bibliography — and dark subject matter had held me back. The picture of the book shown here is a hi-res scan of my hard copy. I chose to cover the Nazi emblem on the jacket and spine with black masking tape. It was originally published in 1960. This is a 30th anniversary edition published in 1990. The author was a broadcast journalist who was in Berlin during Hitler’s rise to power and who witnessed many of the events firsthand. He also drew upon the vast amount of Nazi government documents that were recovered after the war, testimony of witnesses and defendants at the Nuremburg trials that followed, as well as personal interviews.

I picked up this book now because it fits in well with the World War II-era presidents I am currently reading biographies of. I wanted to learn more about the war and about Hitler, especially where he came from and how he came to power. It was not pleasant to read this book, which describes what is arguably the darkest chapter in all of human history.

For today’s book report I’ll summarize some of the key points of what I learned, but first, some terminology. Reich means realm or empire. The Third Reich was Nazi Germany, which lasted for 12 years, from 1933 to 1945. The First Reich refers to the Holy Roman Empire, which existed from the Middle Ages until the rise of Napoleon in the early 19th century. The Second Reich was better known as the German Empire, which existed from the 1870s until the end of World War I. During both eras there were various emperors (Kaisers) including the last one, Wilhelm II, who had to abdicate at the end of World War I. The Weimar Republic followed World War I and was the constitutional system of representational government established in Germany, with free elections, which sadly only lasted for about 15 years, until Hitler and his Nazi party came to power.

The Nazi party was the National Socialist German Workers Party, or National Socialist party, which is a misnomer because the Nazis were not socialists. Rather, the party was based on militant nationalism, expansionism, totalitarianism and overt racism. Fuehrer, which is what they called Hitler, is German for leader. The Luftwaffe was the German air force. The Wehrmacht was the German armed forces, including the army, navy and air force. U-boats were German submarines, as depicted in the 1981 film “Das Boot,” in German with English subtitles. Blitzkrieg meant lightning war, which involved using tanks to overwhelm armies in quick, overwhelming attacks. Lebensraum meant living space, which is what Hitler wanted more of for the German people, but only those belonging to the Aryan race, which he considered superior to all others.

Hitler laid out his plans in “Mein Kampf,” which translates to “My Struggle.” According to Hitler and his stupid book, the master race was entitled to expand eastward, take over the land and kill or enslave the inferior races. That was his evil plan from the beginning.

Hitler was born in 1889 in Austria, which at the time was still part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and when he was very young his family moved to Germany, when it was still the German Empire or Second Reich as mentioned above, and then back to Austria. His father was a civil servant and he wanted his son to follow in that career path, but Hitler wanted to become a painter. After dropping out of high school Hitler moved to Vienna and applied to art school, but he was turned away for lack of talent. Vienna at the time was one of the most beautiful, vibrant and cosmopolitan cities in the world, but for the next several years Hitler lived in squalor and might have been homeless for a time. He started reading racist literature that helped solidify his hatred for Jews.

In 1913, according to the book, Hitler moved to Munich, to avoid military service in Austria because he did not want to serve alongside Jews and others whom he considered undesirable. He was still an unemployed loser when war broke out a year later, and despite not being a German citizen he managed to get permission to join the Bavarian army. He fought bravely and received the Iron Cross. He attained the rank of Corporal. He was wounded twice, first by being shot in the leg and the second time by a gas attack that left him temporarily blind. It was during his convalescence in the hospital that Germany surrendered, thus ending World War I. According to the book, Hitler cried over this like a baby and later started to blame the “November criminals” for their “stab in the back.” According to this ugly conspiracy theory, which took hold, it was Jewish bankers and others pulling strings behind the scenes which led to Germany’s premature and unnecessary surrender in the war. In truth the German military had been soundly defeated.

The Treaty of Versailles came about after World War I and required Germany to pay reparations and severely limited its ability to build up a military force. It also required Germany to cede territory. To most Germans, these measures were humiliating. Even worse, two rounds of economic hardship ensued. First, there was a period of runaway inflation in the early 1920s that left many people financially destitute. Then, when the U.S. stock market crashed in 1929 it set off not only an American depression but a global one, causing massive unemployment throughout Europe and especially in Germany. These were ripe conditions for fringe political parties to take root.

After the war Hitler returned to Munich and got involved with one of these radical organizations, which was a precursor to the Nazi Party, which Hitler took control of. With his hateful, angry rhetoric, Hitler made many speeches and attracted a following. In 1923 he and his followers attempted to overthrow the Weimar Republic in a coup, which became known as the Beer Hall Putsch. The revolt was unsuccessful, resulting in violence in which police killed several of the co-conspirators. Hitler survived the confrontation and ran away, only to be arrested later. During his subsequent trail, Hitler caused a spectacle in the courtroom with his angry outbursts, which only increased his fame and notoriety. He was convicted and sentenced to five years imprisonment, but he was released after about a year.

While he was incarcerated Hitler began working on “Mein Kampf.” He also reflected on his unsuccessful coup, realizing that if he was to overthrow the government he needed something to replace it with. He also concluded that to come to power he would have to do so through constitutional means, and by infiltrating existing institutions. He and his fellow Nazis divided up the country into districts and appointed regional and local leaders to act as a de-facto shadow government. They also started running candidates for office. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, they established a quasi-military police force, the Sturmabteilung (the SA, also known as the Brownshirts) which were basically a bunch of street thugs who used violence and intimidation to bully their political opponents. In federal elections in 1924, 1928, 1930 and 1932, Nazis won seats in the Reichstag, the German legislature, but they never attained a majority. But by 1932 they had more seats than any other party. Also in 1932 Hitler ran for president but lost to Paul von Hindenburg, the incumbent, who was a war hero. The way it worked is that the President appointed the Chancellor, who would form a government. But it was difficult to form a government with so many political parties vying for power. In the midst of all this political chaos, in 1933, Hindenburg, who by this time was a very old man and close to death, named Hitler Chancellor.

Shortly thereafter there was a fire in the Reichstag building, which the Nazis blamed on the Communists. In the ensuing confusion, Hitler persuaded Hindenburg to issue a decree giving him emergency powers. The legislature subsequently passed an Enabling Act, officially ceding their power to Hitler. Then a year later Hindenburg died, and rather than calling for new elections Hitler proclaimed himself Supreme Leader and Chancellor, in essence dictator for life. With his new power Hitler outlawed all the rival political parties and had their leaders jailed, shot or sent away to concentration camps. At first the concentration camps were not death camps. That came later. Hitler also outlawed unions and silenced academics and clergy who dared to speak out against him. He also took control of the press. He basically created a police state. Hitler enacted a number of laws targeting Jews, who were forbidden to work at universities or at various other jobs. Many fled or were deported. In November 1938 it got even worse when Jewish schools, synagogues, private homes and businesses were destroyed in a single night of terror, what became known as Kristallnacht, or the night of broken glass.

Hitler was also preparing for war. When he set forth his crazy ideas to the generals, many knew immediately that this would ultimately lead to complete ruin for Germany. But those who dared raise objections were fired, killed or otherwise eliminated by Hitler, one by one. And in disobedience of the Versailles Treaty, first secretly and then openly, Hitler began a campaign to build up the German military, with more ships, tanks and warplanes. This caused unemployment to fall, but wages were low and it was difficult if not impossible for workers to change jobs or seek better working conditions.

Also in violation of Versailles, Hitler sent troops into the Rhineland, which had been occupied by France, but nobody stopped him. This was in 1936. According to the book, this was the riskiest move Hitler had yet made and had the French stopped him, his whole house of cards would have fallen right then and there. But Hitler had sensed that the World War I allies were wary of armed conflict and would let him get away with quite a lot. He was correct. Hitler next turned his sights on Austria, where many citizens were of German heritage. In March 1938, in what became known as the Anschluss, Hitler annexed Austria. He marched his armies right in and took over, without firing a shot. This is the backdrop of the events depicted in the musical and movie “The Sound of Music.” In the film’s best scene, Captain Von Trapp tears down a Nazi flag and rips it in half. And of course at the end of the movie, rather than accepting a commission in the German Navy, he and Maria lead their family to safety over the Alps into Switzerland.

 

Next Hitler targeted Czechoslovakia, specifically the Sudetenland, or border regions, again where many citizens of German heritage lived. In a policy that became known as appeasement, the allies allowed Hitler to take the Sudetenland with a promise that he would stop there. Of course he was lying. Hitler was constantly lying. British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain made three separate trips to Germany and after the third visit, which took place in Munich in September 1938, he met personally with Hitler and when he returned home he waved the paper and was hailed as a hero for securing the peace.

Shortly thereafter Hitler took not only the Sudetenland but the interior of Czechoslovakia as well, and then he made a non-aggression pact with Soviet leader Joseph Stalin and agreed that Germany and the USSR would divide Poland. When Germany invaded Poland on Sept 1, 1939, Britain and France declared war on Germany. At this time King George VI (Queen Elizabeth II’s father) addressed his nation, the back story of which is depicted in the 2010 film “The King’s Speech.

But neither England nor France was on a war footing. France was especially ill equipped. The German army conquered Poland in a matter of weeks. Meanwhile Britain sent troops to the continent, but the leaders of Britain and France had trouble communicating with each other and failed to put up much of a fight at all. Germany was able to run roughshod over not only Poland but many more countries as well, including Denmark, Norway, Belgium, the Netherlands and Luxembourg. The German army also invaded France, which fell in about a week. Hitler then went on a victory procession down the Champs Elysees in Paris. Soon the entire British army became trapped and surrounded on the northern coast of France. Under the leadership of Winston Churchill, who succeeded Chamberlain as Prime Minister of Great Britain, more than 300,000 troops were evacuated home across the English Channel. For more on this miraculous escape, watch the 2017 movies “Dunkirk,” which is violent, and “Darkest Hour,” which is inspirational and ends on a hopeful note.

Hitler’s next plan was to persuade Britain to surrender. He had plans to invade, but first he decided to attack from the air. In what became known as the Battle of Britain, the German Luftwaffe bombed London, which was defended by the Royal Air Force. It was a ferocious conflict that went on for months, but ultimately the British fighter pilots prevailed. During this time Churchill delivered a number of speeches to the British people that held up morale. King George VI decided to stay in London with his family rather than flee to Canada, which also helped reassure the British people.

After being frustrated by England, Hitler next decided to invade the Soviet Union! (Had he read my book report on Napoleon, he would have known what a bad idea that would turn out to be!) In “Operation Barbarossa,” the German army advanced all the way to Moscow and then got trapped in the cold, brutal winter. They were also held back in Stalingrad. Rather than allow his army to strategically retreat, Hitler ordered his generals to stay and fight to the death. Then, frustrated with his generals, Hitler fired his military chief of staff and rather than replace him, he decided to take over personally. Think about how ridiculous this is. Here is someone whose highest rank to date had been Corporal, and now he thinks he knows better than all his generals.

But it was about to get even worse for the murderous lunatic. About the same time Hitler was losing battles in the Soviet Union, on the other side of the world, the United States was bombed in Hawaii. Our country then declared war on Japan. And days later Hitler declared war on the Americans, in accordance with a deal he had just made with the Japanese. The United States first got involved in the Middle East and Africa, then Italy, and finally, in June 1944, under the command of General Eisenhower, troops from the United States, Britain and Canada invaded France in what became known as D-Day. This is the part of the war depicted in the 1998 movie “Saving Private Ryan.”

It would take almost another year for the Allies to finally defeat Germany, and sadly the end of the Third Reich did not come fast enough. Beginning with the invasion of Poland and later with the invasion of Russia, the Nazis escalated their genocidal plans against the Jewish people. At first many Jews were rounded up and shot, others were confined to urban ghettos in Warsaw and other cities. Much of this is depicted in the 1993 movie “Schindler’s List.” This was all a calculated Nazi plan to literally kill all the Jews in Europe. Starting in 1942, in what they called the “Final Solution,” the Nazis started sending Jews to concentration camps to be murdered in gas chambers and their bodies were burned. In addition to Jews, Roma (Gypsies) and homosexuals were also killed, but most of the victims were Jews. At Auschwitz alone, it is estimated that more than a million people were murdered. There’s an exhibit to this horror currently on display at the Museum of Jewish Heritage here in New York City.

Here are a few more notes about Hitler:

  • He was a vegetarian!
  • He was a fan of classical music and opera, especially Wagner.
  • His family name was Shicklgruber, which would have been Hitler’s own last name except his father, who was of illegitimate birth, had the name changed.
  • He did not become a German citizen until 1932.
  • Before Hitler rose to power he had a relationship with a cousin, who died of a gunshot wound. She might have been murdered, or she might have committed suicide.
  • He dictated Mein Kampf to Rudolf Hess and several others.
  • Hitler designed the Nazi flag himself, with the black swastika in the center of a white disk on a red background. This became the flag of Germany from 1935 to 1945 and was used during the Olympics in Berlin in 1936 and was on the famous Hindenburg blimp, which went down in flames over New Jersey in 1937.
  • Before the swastika was stolen by Hitler as a symbol of hate, the icon was used in many different cultures throughout history, including in Asia and even among some American Indian tribes.
  • The Italian fascist dictator Benito Mussolini was in power at the same time as Hitler, and their fates are intertwined in many ways. Italy and Germany were Axis allies during World War II, along with Japan. Mussolini was deposed in 1943, only to be rescued later by the Nazis. Toward the end of the war, Mussolini was executed by firing squad by his fellow Italians, and his body was hung upside down and defiled. This might have been a reason Hitler wanted his own body to be burned.
  • As part of his plan to seize power, Hitler had the leaders of the SA killed in what become known as the “Blood Purge,” also called the “Night of the Long Knives.” Hitler did this to prevent trouble with the regular German military.
  • The SS (Schutzstaffel) was originally part of the SA but it continued under the leadership of Heinrich Himmler, who was one of the most evil of all Nazis. The SS under Himmler ran the concentration camps and carried out the Holocaust.

There is much more in the book, including many passages about the many plots to arrest or kill Hitler over the years. The most famous of the plots was depicted in the 2008 film “Valkyrie,” starring Tom Cruise. The book also has lots on diplomacy, especially leading up to the war, and it is quite detailed in that regard, often describing the frantic meetings on a day-by-day or even hour-by-hour basis. Yet as long as the book is, and as much information it contains, it barely scratches the surface of the horrors unleashed on this world by Hitler.

Walter Isaacson’s biography of Einstein

In 1905, when he was just 26 years old and working as a clerk in the Swiss patent office in Bern, he wrote four scientific papers that would forever change the way humanity comprehends some of the most fundamental laws of nature:

  • First, he demonstrated that light comes in specific quantities or packets, called quanta, later to be called photons, and this discovery helped explain the photoelectric effect, which is what happens when light bounces off an object. This disproved the long-held belief in “ether,” or a substance in space through which light waves were thought to travel.
  • He helped prove the existence of molecules and how they can be measured, and he showed how the existence of molecules explains Brownian motion, or the vibrations of particles suspended in liquid.
  • He then put forth his theory of Special Relativity, in which he disproved Isaac Newton’s concept of absolute time. According to Einstein, measurements of time, and also of space and distance, are relative to the motion of the observer. He said that there can be no absolute time or absolute space, but something he called spacetime.
  • Next, Einstein came up with the principle of mass-energy equivalence, as expressed in the most famous formula in all of science, e=mc2, in which e is energy, m is mass and c is the speed of light. The equation means that energy can be converted to mass and vice versa. Decades later this formula would lay the foundation for the development of nuclear weapons. More on that in a moment.

Albert Einstein came up with all four of these scientific breakthroughs in a single year, known as his “annus mirabilis” or “miracle year,” in his spare time. That’s because his day job was that of patent clerk, a position he had settled for after being unable to get a job as a professor following his graduation from university in Zurich. Despite having set the scientific world on fire, he remained relatively unknown and even kept his patent clerk job for several more years.

Einstein book review
“Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson

 

This is according to “Einstein: His Life and Universe” by Walter Isaacson, a book that describes, in 551 pages, not only Einstein’s many theories but his entire life story as well. For me as a reader, I must admit I found much of the science in this book difficult to understand. Come to think of it, I was actually quite baffled. The chapters on his life and times were much more enjoyable.

Albert Einstein was a theoretical physicist. He was born in Germany in 1879. He was a Jew. When he was a boy he was given a compass, which fascinated him. When he was still in his teens he moved to Switzerland and renounced his German citizenship. This might have been to avoid compulsory military service. According to the book, Einstein did not like military parades, soldiers marching in the street or any such glorification of war. He also shunned blind deference to authority. He questioned everything.

He was “stateless” for five years after moving to Switzerland, at which time he became a Swiss citizen. He attended the Swiss federal polytechnic institute in Zurich. He married and would later divorce Mileva Maric, a fellow student who was from Serbia. She was a Christian. They had two sons, Hans Albert Einstein and Eduard Einstein. According to the book, he and Mileva also had a daughter, who apparently either died at a very young age or was given up for adoption. His second wife was Elsa, who was his cousin. She had two daughters, one of whom would eventually live with Einstein. For many decades Einstein had a live-in secretary, Helen Dukas, who was with him constantly and served as his gatekeeper. Einstein also had several mistresses over the years, sometimes in plain view of his wife.

After leaving the job at the patent office, Einstein held several teaching positions and eventually landed at the Prussian Academy of Sciences, in Berlin, where many of the world’s brightest minds then held court. But to go there he had to become a German citizen again. It was from there that he put forth his theory of General Relativity, in which he said, among other things, that gravity happens when objects bend the fabric of spacetime. He also predicted that light from another star would be bent by the Sun’s gravity, and in May 1919, during an eclipse, this was tested and proven to be true. The results were published on the front pages of newspapers around the world, thus making Einstein an overnight global celebrity. From then on his name would be synonymous with the word “genius.”

In 1921 Einstein made his first trip to the United States, at the invitation of Chaim Weizmann, then president of the World Zionist Organization. Everywhere he went Einstein was greeted by large crowds and inquisitive reporters. Einstein played the part of the friendly professor and answered the reporters’ questions with quick, snappy lines delivered with a grin.

In subsequent visits to the United States, Einstein attended the opera, went to a Hollywood film premiere with Charlie Chaplin, was feted with statues, awards and keys to cities, and he spoke at universities. For a time, Einstein expressed pacifist views and even encouraged all who would listen to shun compulsory military service. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany, Einstein’s views on pacifism and conscientious objection to the draft changed. For the second time he renounced his German citizenship. In 1933 Einstein sought refuge, first in Great Britain and then in the United States, accepting a position at Princeton University in New Jersey. He had also been courted by the California Institute of Technology. Einstein spent the rest of his life in the United States. He became a U.S. citizen in 1940. He died in 1955.

At the outset of World War II, Einstein, with the help of another scientist, Leo Szilard, wrote a letter to President Franklin D. Roosevelt warning that it would be possible to use uranium in a chain reaction that would release an unimaginable amount of energy. The letter was hand delivered to FDR and was read aloud to him. After that and a follow-up letter from Einstein, the president established the top-secret Manhattan Project, which would result in the development of nuclear weapons. Einstein himself did not work on the bomb, Robert Oppenheimer and many other scientists led that effort. When Germany’s defeat in the war seemed imminent, Einstein wrote FDR yet another letter calling for caution in deploying the weapon, but FDR died before he received it and the letter instead went to President Harry S. Truman, who passed it to a subordinate.

Einstein had brought the possibility of a bomb to the attention of FDR because he thought the German scientists back in Berlin would certainly be working on one themselves, but when he learned that was not the case he regretted his decision for the rest of his life. After World War II Einstein spoke out in favor of arms control, and for the establishment of a world government. He wanted a body that would be stronger that the United Nations turned out to be, something with a military force, which he considered necessary to prevent future wars and human annihilation. Isaacson quotes Einstein, speaking to Newsweek magazine, “Had I known that the Germans would not succeed in producing an atomic bomb, I never would have lifted a finger.”

Here are some additional facts about Albert Einstein:

  • He thought visually, and he conceived of his theories largely in visual terms. He often used “thought experiments” to develop his ideas.
  • He was a creative thinker who was similar in many ways to those who revolutionized other fields, such as Sigmund Freud in psychology and Pablo Picasso in art.
  • According to the book, he was not an atheist.
  • Nor was he a communist. But he was investigated by J. Edgar Hoover at the FBI, which kept a file on him.
  • He believed in social and economic justice, as well as personal freedom. He was skeptical of the socialist revolution when it began in Russia because he felt it would be repressive and authoritarian.
  • In general, he was good natured and friendly, although he could be emotionally distant and even a bit cruel to those close to him. According to the book, he was especially mean at times to his first wife.
  • He had wild, unruly hair. It was part of his image of a disheveled scientist. He could also be forgetful and often misplaced his keys or train tickets.
  • He played the violin.
  • He also enjoyed sailing.
  • He had many lifelong friends and scientific colleagues.
  • One of his friends was Queen Elisabeth (later the Queen Mother) of Belgium.
  • When his first wife originally refused to give him a divorce, Einstein was able to persuade her by promising to give her the money should he win the Nobel Prize at a future date.
  • Einstein won the Nobel Prize in 1921, not for relativity but for his work on the photoelectric effect. Isaacson’s book explains all the drama and politics of how that happened.
  • Originally Einstein had written his famous formula as L=mv2, but he later changed it to E=mc2 to comply with more common symbols.
  • Before collaborating with Szilard on the letter to FDR, the two patented a refrigerator.
  • Both of his stepdaughters had husbands who wrote books about Einstein.
  • After the death of Weizmann, who had become the first president of Israel, Einstein was offered the presidency of Israel, but he politely and firmly declined.
  • After Einstein’s death, in a ghastly act, his brain was preserved in a jar and was later experimented on by various scientists, none of whom ever learned anything significant.
  • The theoretical physicist is portrayed in the musical “Einstein’s Dreams,” currently running Off-Broadway, which, in my opinion (I went to see it last weekend) was completely wrong scientifically and on many other levels. It is based on a book of the same name.
  • In the movies, Walter Matthau gives what I consider to be a much more enjoyable portrayal of Einstein is in the 1994 film “I.Q.,” also starring Meg Ryan and Tim Robbins.

Also during Einstein’s lifetime the field of quantum mechanics took shape. This is the study of atoms and subatomic particles. In his own mind Einstein was troubled by many of these discoveries, which were made by Niels Bohr and many other scientists. That’s because determining the location of an electron around the nucleus of an atom required the use of probabilities, which caused Einstein to utter his immortal words that God does not “play dice” with the universe!

Another facet of quantum mechanics is known as entanglement, which is an observed phenomenon in which two particles that have interacted with each other will have opposite properties even when far apart from each other. Einstein called this “Spooky Action at a Distance,” which is a term still in use today — google it or look it up on YouTube!

Einstein spent the final years of his life thinking and working on a theory that would reconcile relativity with quantum mechanics. It’s an effort that continues to this day.

For me, reading “Einstein: His Life and Universe” was a nice little peek into the world of theoretical physics. I think I might understand some of this stuff a little better now, but I am not sure. But it was still fun to read about, and I am glad I did. This was the second biography I have read by historian Walter Isaacson, who is the former managing editor of Time magazine. Earlier I also read his book on Benjamin Franklin, which was fantastic in my opinion. Isaacson also wrote a biography of Steve Jobs, which I do not plan to read, and another of Leonardo DaVinci, which I certainly will at a future date.

David M. Oshinsky’s book about polio

In “Polio: An American Story,” author David M. Oshinsky identifies four key heroes in the fight to eradicate the disease. They are Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, the scientists who developed vaccines; Basil O’Connor, chairman of the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, the organization founded by President Franklin D. Roosevelt; and FDR himself, who was the world’s most famous polio survivor. My own mother was another.

book review Polio: An American Story David M. Oshinsky
“Polio: An American Story,” by David M. Oshinsky

 

FDR contracted the disease in 1921, after he had been governor of New York but before he became president. Like countless others, he was crippled for life by the virus. Many others died. During his convalescence he visited a property in Warm Springs, Georgia, which included a swimming pool and a hotel, and he purchased the property and turned it into a facility to help treat those with polio, mostly children. FDR brought in Basil O’Connor, his business partner, to run it. The fee was $42 per week, but patients who could not afford it were allowed to come anyway. FDR had used most of his life savings to purchase the property and later relied on private fund-raising.

Later, during his presidency, FDR founded the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis, which still exists today as the March of Dimes. O’Connor ran the national foundation for decades. The purpose of the organization was twofold: First, to pay for medical care for those who were stricken by polio and, second, to fund research to develop a cure.

Over the decades the national foundation raised and distributed many millions of dollars. It was the first time such an organization had been formed to combat a disease, and it was groundbreaking in many ways. The fund-raising drives, which were clever and successful, involved local community involvement and later included having a “poster child.” Many of the initiatives also brought in celebrities, who hosted balls across the country each year on FDR’s birthday.

There had been an unsuccessful attempt at a vaccine in the 1930s, but it was not until many years later that Jonas Salk and Albert Sabin, working separately, developed the vaccines that were ultimately successful. The Salk vaccine came first and was used to treat most children in the United States in the 1950s. The Sabin vaccine followed and was used to treat most children in the Soviet Union and in many other parts of the world. The Salk vaccine involves an injection or a series of injections of a killed virus, while the Sabin vaccine involves ingesting weakened live virus on a sugar cube.

Salk and Sabin were rivals, and their differing approaches on how a vaccine should be developed — and how quickly — led to bitter disputes in the scientific community.

A few more notes:

  • There are three types of the virus that causes polio, which is also called poliomyelitis or infantile paralysis. The term “infantile paralysis” is something of a misnomer, since most of those stricken by the disease are children.
  • Each type of the polio virus has various strains, some more aggressive than others.
  • Salk, whose work landed him on the cover of Time magazine, became a celebrity. He was criticized by fellow scientists as being a publicity hound. Salk was also criticized by many of the scientists who worked under him, who felt that he did not adequately credit their own contributions.
  • Eddie Cantor, the movie actor and radio personality, coined the term “march of dimes.” He was one of countless celebrities who helped raise funds for the cause. Others included Glenn Miller, Guy Lombardo, Mary Pickford, Mary Martin, Joe DiMaggio and Lucille Ball, among many others.
  • In recent years some have speculated that FDR might not have had polio at all, but rather Guillain–Barré syndrome.
  • Today, the dime in your pocket features a portrait of FDR, in recognition of his founding of the March of Dimes!

I learned a great deal reading “Polio: An American Story” by David M. Oshinsky. I think the author did a good job of explaining the science without getting too complicated for a reader without much of a medical background. He also did a very good job of putting the disease into the context of the times. The book is also helpfully illustrated with many pictures, which help tell the story of this dreaded disease and how it was conquered.

Eleanor Roosevelt

During the approximately 12 years that Franklin D. Roosevelt, our nation’s 32nd president, served in the White House, his wife kept a high profile. Eleanor Roosevelt held press conferences and gave speeches in public. She published newspaper and magazine columns and hosted a weekly radio show. During the depression years she traveled all across the country, visiting children in poor neighborhoods and workers in coal mines, advocating for better living and working conditions. During the war years she traveled extensively overseas, visiting troops to help raise morale. She was also outspoken on civil rights and women’s rights.

It should be noted that the job of first lady is not really a job at all. There are no required duties. According to the Associated Press Stylebook, “first lady” is not even a formal title and should not be capitalized in news articles.

Eleanor Roosevelt biographyreedman
“Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” by Russell Freedman

 

Both before and after the White House years, Eleanor Roosevelt had a thriving public career. In the years before FDR’s presidency, Eleanor was active in charitable and philanthropic organizations, in Democratic Party politics, and in various women’s groups. She taught at Todhunter School for Girls in New York City. She also helped run a furniture factory with some of her female companions, with whom she shared a house at Val-Kill, in Hyde Park, New York.

After FDR’s death, President Harry S. Truman appointed Eleanor Roosevelt a delegate to the United Nations, where she worked in various capacities for many years. She chaired a commission on human rights and was instrumental in drafting the U.N.’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights.

Here are some additional notes about Eleanor Roosevelt’s life:

  • She was niece of Theodore Roosevelt and was fifth cousin of Franklin D. Roosevelt. Theodore attended the wedding of Eleanor and Franklin in New York City when he was president and gave the bride away. It was St. Patrick’s Day 1905.
  • She was born to wealthy parents in 1884 in New York City. She was orphaned at and early age and was raised mostly by her grandmother.
  • She was sent to a private all-girls school in England that was taught entirely in French, where she thrived. But her grandmother made her come back to New York a year early to make her social debut as a debutante.
  • After Eleanor and Franklin married, they had six children, one of whom died in infancy.
  • Franklin had an affair with another woman, and Eleanor found out about it in 1918. The other woman, Lucy Mercer, turned out to be Eleanor’s social secretary! Franklin promised to end the affair, and he and Eleanor stayed married. But from then on they lived separate lives in many respects.
  • When Franklin died in 1945 at his home for polio survivors in Warm Springs, Georgia, Eleanor learned that Lucy Mercer (who was now Mrs. Rutherfurd) had been with him. Not only that, Eleanor also learned that the other woman had been visiting FDR in the White House, and everyone including her daughter, Anna, knew about it.
  • After FDR’s death Eleanor moved to New York City, first living in an apartment on Washington Square in Greenwich Village. Later she bought a house with her physician and his wife, where the three of them lived together and became companions.
  • She wrote more than two dozen books.
  • Throughout her life Eleanor Roosevelt had close relationships with several other women, as well as with men, the nature and scope of which has been speculated upon extensively.
  • When Eleanor Roosevelt died in 1962 at age 78, President and Mrs. John F. Kennedy, Vice President Lyndon B. Johnson and former Presidents Harry S. Truman and Dwight D. Eisenhower attended her funeral.

Most of this is included in “Eleanor Roosevelt: A Life of Discovery” by Russell Freedman, a book intended for younger readers. I really liked this book. I found it heart-warming and informative. One of the best features of Freedman’s book is its extensive collection of photographs. Sometimes pictures can say more than words.

There are many other books about Eleanor Roosevelt, including a multi-volume series by Blanche Wiese Cook, which I have not read but I understand goes into much greater detail about Eleanor’s personal life and relationships. There’s also the wonderful seven-part Ken Burns documentary, “The Roosevelts: An Intimate History,” available on Netflix, which is definitely worthwhile in my opinion.

Eleanor Roosevelt Universal Declaration of Human Rights
Eleanor Roosevelt holds the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, which was adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on Dec. 10, 1948. This photo, dated November 1949, is from the FDR Presidential Library & Museum

 

FDR

Franklin D. Roosevelt, a Democrat, was our nation’s 32nd President. He is considered one of the greats. He led our country during two of its most difficult challenges: The Great Depression and World War II. He was elected to an unprecedented third term, and then to an even more unprecedented fourth term. But he was president for 12 years, not 16. That’s because he died three months into his fourth term. He is the only president to have served more than two terms. He had three different vice presidents: John Nance Garner during his first and second terms, Henry A. Wallace during his third term and Harry S. Truman for his fourth. He won all four of his presidential elections in landslides. In 1932 he soundly defeated incumbent President Herbert Hoover. In 1936 his opponent was Alf Landon, in 1940 Wendell Willkie and in 1944 Thomas E. Dewey.

Today’s book report is on “FDR” by Jean Edward Smith. There are many biographies of FDR to choose from, and I selected this particular title because I wanted a solidly written, one-volume, cradle-to-grave book. I am glad I chose this one. It clocks in at 600-plus pages of text, with an additional 200 pages of notes plus 32 pages of photographs. In my view, this is a well-researched and nicely written biography. Like in any good biography, the author describes not only the subject’s successes and triumphs but also his flaws and failures. Yes, FDR had quite a number of flaws. But he had many more good qualities. Many of these characteristics were endearing, even heroic. Many passages in this book were moving and brought a tear to my eye, and a few other descriptions made me laugh out loud. A minor complaint I had was the author’s frequent use of asterisks and footnotes — lots of them, on almost every page — breaking up the flow of reading. I also thought the coverage toward the end of the events leading up to D-Day, and then the 1944 presidential campaign, was a bit on the skimpy side. But all in all, this book was filled with tons of insight and information. Here is some of what I learned.

 

Franklin D. Roosevelt was born into a life of wealth and privilege. His status came not only from the paternal side of the family. His mother, Sara Delano, came from a wealthy family herself. Sara was what would be called today a helicopter parent. Her influence on her son was immeasurable. She saw that Franklin received an excellent education, first at home with tutors and later at boarding school. By the time he was 9 years old Franklin knew French and German. The family traveled extensively in Europe. He attended Harvard and graduated after three years, but he stayed on campus a fourth year as editor of the student newspaper, the Crimson.

Franklin was a distant cousin of both Theodore Roosevelt and Eleanor Roosevelt. Franklin was from the Hyde Park (Hudson River) branch of the family, and Theodore and Eleanor were from the Oyster Bay (Long Island) branch. Theodore was Eleanor’s uncle. Eleanor’s father, Elliott (Theodore’s brother), died of alcoholism when Eleanor was a girl. Like her uncle and cousin, Eleanor also lived a life of privilege. She attended an all-girls boarding school in England that was taught entirely in French. Theodore was president when Franklin and Eleanor got married, and Theodore attended their wedding in Manhattan and gave Eleanor away. Eleanor Roosevelt’s maiden name was Eleanor Roosevelt.

Eleanor and Franklin had six children, a daughter and five sons. One of the sons died in infancy. All of their children ended up getting married and divorced multiple times, and several of the sons embarrassed their father while he was president with various minor scandals. All of FDR’s sons served in World War II. At one point early in their marriage, Eleanor discovered that Franklin was having an affair. The other woman was Lucy Mercer, and Eleanor found a packet of love letters they had exchanged. FDR broke off the affair. Eleanor and Franklin remained married, but from that point on they led separate lives, had separate groups of friends and had separate interests. In the White House, according to the book, FDR and Eleanor dined apart each night, in separate dining rooms, with different groups of people.

Eleanor became active in various social and philanthropic causes, as well as with various women’s organizations. In these circles she met and befriended two women, Marion Dickerman and Nancy Cook, who lived together in an apartment in Greenwich Village. FDR built them a “shack,” which was actually a large mansion, called Val-Kill, located on the Hyde park property in New York State, where the women all lived together. The author of “FDR” does not delve too deeply into Eleanor’s relationships with other women or speculate on the scope of their intimacy. Eleanor was also close with various men in her life. According to the book, Eleanor had a male bodyguard, Earl Miller, a New York State Police officer, who became a companion and friend, and who might also have been more than a friend.

FDR got his start in politics as a State Senator. Then, following in cousin Theodore’s footsteps, he became assistant secretary of the Navy. In 1920 FDR ran for vice president as the running mate of James Cox. They lost to Warren G. Harding and Calvin Coolidge. A year later, FDR had a life-changing event. He contracted polio and was paralyzed from the waist down. He spent several years convalescing, first aboard houseboats in Florida and later in Warm Springs, Georgia, where he purchased a large property and turned it into a home for polio survivors. He faced his physical disability with courage, never asking for or seeking sympathy. He devised a strategy for appearances in public in which he would walk with crutches and braces while holding on to a son or a military aide. Always, even though he might have been in excruciating pain, he was smiling.

In 1928 FDR ran for governor of New York and won, again following in TR’s footsteps, and then in 1932 he ran for President and won. During this time, becoming governor of New York was seen as a stepping-stone to the White House. FDR was the fourth governor of New York to become president. Martin Van Buren, Grover Cleveland and TR were the others.

When FDR took office in 1933 the country was in the grips of the Great Depression, the worst economic crisis it had ever known. FDR acted quickly and decisively, first to stabilize the nation’s banks, and then to establish a number of government agencies and programs designed to put people back to work. He called this agenda the New Deal, and in his first 100 days he got Congress to pass enormous amounts of legislation. Some of these programs and agencies were temporary, while many others have survived to this day. The Public Works Administration (PWA) was created to use federal funds to build dams, bridges and schools. There was also the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC), which hired young men to plant trees. And later there was the Works Projects Administration (WPA), which also employed many people and funded many endeavors, including arts projects. FDR also signed into law legislation that created the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. (FDIC), which for the first time protected depositors from bank failures; the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), to regulate the stock market; and the Tennessee Valley Authority (TVA), which built dams and power stations and controlled flooding. He brought electricity to rural communities. He initiated legislation for unemployment insurance, and he signed the Social Security Act into law.

All of this was a departure from his three immediate predecessors, who thought that the Washington had no business enacting such programs. But FDR was different. He believed that the full force of the federal government should be brought to bear to provide for the general welfare, and to improve the lives of all citizens. Perhaps the biggest departure from his predecessors, however, was FDR’s sincere confidence that things would get better, that everything was going to be OK. Unlike Hoover, who was a pessimist, FDR was an optimist. It was in his first inaugural address that he uttered the immortal phrase that we have “nothing to fear but fear itself,” which was a message the American people needed to hear at the time.

The next huge event to confront FDR and the nation was the outbreak of World War II. Hitler was on a murderous rampage, and he had already invaded France and was threatening Britain. Yet the American public did not want to go to war. FDR helped Britain with desperately needed war materiel, under a policy that he devised called Lend-Lease. He also got Congress to enact a military draft. After the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor, FDR gave his famous “a date which will live in infamy” speech to an emergency joint session of Congress, and he called for massive numbers of planes, tanks and ammunition to be manufactured in our nation’s factories. Early in the war, FDR devised a secret plan that allowed the United States to drop bombs on Tokyo. It was a crazy idea, but it worked. And while it had little military effect on the conflict at the time, it achieved a much-needed morale boost for the Americans. Again, FDR’s confidence and optimism came into play.

During the war FDR met many times with Churchill, and a few other times with Churchill and Stalin. According to the book, FDR did not micromanage the war effort. He set broad goals and left it to his generals to plan and execute the objectives. For D-Day, according to the book, FDR merely set the date and named Eisenhower commander, and he let his military leader conduct Operation Overlord, as it was code-named.

FDR also made several huge mistakes, and he had plenty of personal flaws. According to the book, he had been arrogant as a state senator and rubbed many people the wrong way. As president, he signed no civil rights legislation. The author says that FDR was unable to act on civil rights because he needed to keep southern racist Democrats in his fold, because he needed their support for his New Deal and war initiatives. Also, tragically, FDR went along with a plan during World War II to send Japanese Americans to concentration camps. During his second term FDR also interfered, unwisely, in various Democratic Party primary races and was embarrassed. Also during his second term he cut federal spending, which led to the “Roosevelt Recession,” which was basically a recession within the depression.

Perhaps FDR’s most famous blunder was his ill-fated scheme to pack the Supreme Court. This happened during his second term, after the court had struck down several of his New Deal programs as unconstitutional. FDR failed in his plan and was bruised politically. According to the book, the reason so much of the legislation had been struck down was that it had been poorly written or too hastily drafted.

Nevertheless, despite FDR’s shortcomings, his tenure in office includes momentous achievement. By the end of 1944 the depression was over, the Allies had invaded France and the tide of the war had turned and the end was in sight. FDR sought and won a fourth term, but his health had deteriorated markedly. He was in Warm Springs when he died in April 1945. Lucy Mercer, not Eleanor, was with him.

Here are a few more facts about FDR:

  • He was lifelong stamp collector.
  • He also collected stuffed birds.
  • He had a beloved dog, Fala.
  • He was a natural politician who knew how to cultivate relationships with key players in and out of government. He used flattery, cajoling and various other means to get what he wanted.
  • In 1932 FDR flew from Albany to Chicago to accept the Democratic Presidential nomination at the convention in person. The plane had to stop twice on the way for fuel.
  • In all his years as president, FDR had Democratic majorities in both houses of Congress. In some sessions the majorities were substantial, at other times narrow.
  • He held “Fireside Chats,” broadcast to the American people via radio. He started the broadcasts when he was governor of New York.
  • He had good relations with the press, and he held twice weekly press conferences.
  • As a precursor to full repeal of Prohibition, FDR signed federal legislation that legalized beer.
  • Every afternoon FDR observed “children’s hour,” in which he would mix drinks for himself and whoever he happened to be hosting that day.
  • When FDR was governor of New York, he named a woman, Frances Perkins, to his cabinet. When he became president, he named Perkins Labor Secretary. She was the first woman cabinet secretary.
  • FDR also had two female assistants, one of whom, Missy, was at his side constantly. When Missy had a stroke, FDR wrote her into his will, but she died first.
  • Eleanor was considered a political liability because she advocated for women’s equality and spoke out for civil rights for blacks.
  • FDR had a half-brother, James, who was many years older.
  • FDR was on a trip to Europe in 1901 with is mother when they received word that President McKinley had been assassinated and their cousin Theodore had become president.
  • When FDR was president-elect, a gunman tried to assassinate FDR when he was on a trip to Miami. FDR was not hit, but several bystanders were, as was the mayor of Chicago, who died.
  • He could quote British poetry from memory, a talent that endeared him to Churchill.
  • He drew a sketch for the design of what would become the Bethesda Naval Hospital.
  • According to the book, FDR was always seen in public standing with his braces locked, or seated in an open car. Only two pictures are known to exist showing FDR in a wheelchair.
  • The 22nd amendment, which limits a president to two terms, came into effect after FDR.

Whew! There is certainly a lot to consider about FDR. In my view, he was indeed one of our nation’s best presidents. I consider him to be the leader our country needed at the time, not only to help us get out of the depression but also to get us through the war. He left many lasting legacies, including Social Security, the FDIC, unemployment insurance, rural electricity, flooding protection — and the GI Bill, which FDR also signed, allowing millions of returning American servicemen to get an education and improve their lives and increase the nation’s standard of living. Plus of course, there’s the United Nations, which FDR laid the foundation for and is yet another organization that endures to this day.

What strikes me most, though, is that FDR did not have to do any of this. He was born rich enough that he could have spent his entire life doing essentially nothing. And then, after being stricken with polio, he could have retired from public life altogether. Nobody would have faulted him had he chosen to fade away. He had several comfortable homes to choose from. But there was something about FDR that made him genuinely want to help others, and to help his country.

Mister, we could use a man like FDR again.

How FDR reacted to his polio diagnosis

Jean Edward Smith FDR bok reviewAbout a quarter of the way into this presidential biography by Jean Edward Smith, I came across a quote that I’m taking a moment to reflect upon. It’s the point in the book at which FDR is stricken with polio, in 1921, and he is hospitalized and unable to walk. According to the author, a journalist described the scene when friends visited FDR in the hospital. “Roosevelt gaily brushed aside every hint of condolence and sent them [the well-wishers] away more cheerful than when they arrived,” the journalist wrote. “None of them has ever heard him utter a complaint or a regret or even acknowledge that he had had so much as a bit of bad luck.” The author continues, “FDR saw it as his duty not only to appear in the best of spirits but to bolster the spirits of those about him.”

This passage made me think of my mother, also a polio survivor, who was born in 1932, the year FDR was elected president. I don’t recall my mother ever complaining, not even once, about how the virus had affected her own body, requiring her to use crutches and braces for the rest of her life. She sometimes would recall mistreatment by doctors and teachers at orthopedic school, but she never, not once, bemoaned her situation. To the contrary, she would always be optimistic. She would focus on the many things she could do, and she would often make light of her crutch, and the hand brake she used on her car, with a clever sense of humor.

Herbert Hoover

He tried so hard to pull our country out of the worst economic disaster it ever experienced before or since, what would become known as the Great Depression. Even before the Wall Street crash of October 1929, which came just months after his inauguration, Herbert Hoover knew the stock market was a speculative bubble. He had taken steps to address this, but few would listen. After the crash he immediately called captains of industry to the White House and got them to promise not to implement massive layoffs or pay cuts. He also persuaded union leaders to agree not to stage any labor protests or strikes during this time of crisis. His efforts worked for a while, but soon it became evident that this was more than just a cyclical recession.

It was really a problem with worldwide dimensions. It was brought about by factors that included a massive global trade imbalance, poor international monetary policy, and how governments were maintaining or not maintaining a gold standard. It was all complicated by the massive debts and reparations owed after the war in Europe. The depression was much worse overseas, and in Germany the government was about to collapse. Here at home, Hoover got Congress to agree to a moratorium on German debt and reparations payments. He also called for private relief through organizations like the Red Cross. And he encouraged state and local governments to implement local infrastructure projects to help spur employment.

But when Britain abandoned the gold standard it set off another round of misery here, causing massive bank failures. Hoover gathered the nation’s top banking executives to Washington to establish what would become the Reconstruction Finance Corporation (RFC), which was an effort designed to keep credit flowing and banks liquid. Finally, thinking that the economy was soon to improve, Hoover set out to raise taxes and cut spending in an effort to balance the federal budget and thus demonstrate that the government was on solid footing.

When Hoover implemented these measures, the economy would perk up for a few months at a time, only to fall off again. There seemed to be no end in sight to the misery. It’s therefore no surprise that Hoover became a one-term president. In the election of 1932, New York Governor Franklin Delano Roosevelt beat Hoover decisively, winning 472 electoral votes vs. 59 for Hoover, and getting 57.4 percent of the popular vote to Hoover’s 39.7 percent.

 

Today’s book report is on “Hoover: An Extraordinary Life in Extraordinary Times” by Kenneth Whyte. It’s a fitting title for someone who was active in public life not only during the Great Depression, but also during both World War I and World War II, and the start of the Cold War. At more than 600 pages with thoughtful insight and analysis, I found this book a pleasure to read. It’s certainly one of the best presidential biographies I have yet encountered. I learned so much, not only about Hoover but also about the momentous times in which he lived.

Elected to our nation’s highest office in 1928, Herbert Hoover was our nation’s 31st president. He was a Republican who had never before held elective office. But he was no stranger to the federal government, having served in three previous administrations.

A native of West Branch, Iowa, Hoover was the first president born west of the Mississippi. He was also the first Quaker to be elected president. He was orphaned when he was just 9 years old and was sent to live with relatives in Oregon. His early childhood trauma likely affected his emotional development, leading to lifelong social awkwardness and an inability to connect with others on a human level. He didn’t like “glad handing” or kissing babies as so many other politicians do. He was among the first students to attend Stanford University, where he studied engineering. After college he got a lucrative job working for a British mining company, and he traveled to Australia and China to develop mines. He was really good at this, and he made tons of money for the company and for himself. He eventually settled in London, where he started his own firm.

In business Hoover had developed immense organizational and managerial abilities, and when war broke out in Europe he put these talents to use, first by helping Americans stranded abroad get home safely, and then later by organizing massive humanitarian relief for the people of Belgium, who were starving. After the war, Hoover joined President Woodrow Wilson’s delegation to the Paris peace talks and later organized more humanitarian relief, this time for all of Europe. President Warren G. Harding, who was elected in 1920, gave Hoover a cabinet post — Secretary of Commerce — and he stayed on in that post under Calvin Coolidge after Harding died in office.

Hoover was an excellent commerce secretary. In an effort to streamline business activity and eliminate waste, he gathered and published immense amounts of data and called for improvements to the nation’s infrastructure as well as preservation of natural resources. He helped get the Radio Act of 1927 signed into law under Coolidge, which regulated and helped organize the nation’s airwaves. Importantly, Hoover also set out to standardize construction materials and consumer products, everything from screws to bricks to automobile tires and even baby bottles. According to the book, Hoover’s standardization of home building materials reduced the price of a new house by a third, making home ownership more achievable for many Americans.

These initiatives all fit in with Hoover’s worldview, that government should help foster business growth and stability without intervening directly. In other words Hoover was not a laissez faire capitalist, nor could be he called a socialist. He was rather a champion of a so-called “third alternative.”

When a great flood of the Mississippi River caused widespread devastation in 1927, Hoover performed the duties of what a good FEMA director would do today, organizing relief efforts and saving many lives and livelihoods. He relied in large part on private donations.

In 1928, after Coolidge declined to seek another presidential term, Hoover received the Republican Party nomination. He won in a landslide, receiving 444 electoral votes to 87 for the Democratic nominee, Al Smith of New York. The popular vote in 1928 was 58.3 percent for Hoover and 40.8 percent for Smith.

When Hoover began his term of office the first thing he did was get in a huge fight with Congress — over tariffs! The Republicans controlled both houses, but Hoover lacked the political savvy and the inside connections needed to get legislation through. In the midterm elections of 1930, the Democrats gained seats in the House but the Republicans maintained control. Then late in Hoover’s term several Republican representatives died, causing power in the House to flip to the Democrats. Interestingly, when this happened Hoover was able to get legislation passed more easily.

Hoover was president during the Prohibition era. Early in his presidency Hoover convened a commission to study the issue, but when it recommended that the Volstead Act, which was the federal government’s enforcement mechanism against booze, be revised, and Prohibition itself be revisited, Hoover did not act. To his credit, Hoover had wisely called Prohibition an “experiment” in the 1928 campaign, but at heart Hoover was more of a “dry.” In the election of 1932 the Democratic Party platform called for outright repeal of the 18th Amendment, and FDR campaigned on repeal. This might have contributed to FDR’s lopsided victory over Hoover.

As a former president, Hoover lived for many more decades and continued to serve his country. He chaired two Hoover Commissions, one under President Truman and one under President Eisenhower, to help eliminate redundancies in the administrative branch and to help make the federal government run more efficiently.

After leaving office Hoover lived for a time in a large house in California, but he eventually moved to New York City, living in a suite at the Waldorf Astoria Hotel. He died in 1964 at age 90, outliving both FDR and JFK.

Also after his presidency, Hoover spoke out publicly and privately against FDR. In my view, some of Hoover’s criticism of his successor was sour grapes, but in other respects it was warranted. Hoover thought that FDR should not have let the United States recognize the Soviet Union, and he was infuriated that so many people ended up living under an iron fist after the second world war. Hoover also was troubled by the New Deal, thinking that the federal government was getting too big and interfering too much in industry. According to the book, the elder statesman Hoover became the spiritual godfather of the modern conservative movement, influencing thinkers such as William F. Buckley Jr.

Nevertheless, after the Depression Hoover was branded a failure, and that sentiment lasted for many generations. This may or may not have been fair. I tend to think that it was unfair. In 1932 and in his subsequent presidential campaigns, FDR and his Democratic Party had been especially nasty toward Hoover. As part of a Democratic Party smear campaign, shantytowns during the depression were dubbed Hoovervilles — a term that continued to be used even during FDR’s many years of being president during the Depression.

This blaming the Depression on Hoover even carried over into popular culture. For example, the Broadway musical “Annie” features a song called “Thank you Herbert Hoover,” which is a sarcastic thank you. And in the popular song “I’m Still Here” by Sondheim, from the show “Follies,” a woman of a certain age reflects on her life, remembering living through the Depression and many other ups and downs. “I lived through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, that was fun and a half,” she sings. “When you’ve lived through Herbert and J. Edgar Hoover, everything else is a laugh.”

It must have been difficult to be Herbert Hoover, especially during the FDR years. He was unpopular, yet, according to the book, when everyday Americans encountered him they wanted to shake his hand. Sadly, Hoover was not emotionally capable of reciprocating these affections.

Here are some additional facts about Herbert Hoover:

  • He married Lou Henry, and they had two sons, Herbert Jr. and Allan. Lou Hoover was an extraordinary woman in her own right. She had been a tomboy. In a picture included in the book, she resembles Annie Oakley! She rode horses and drove cars. She even drove coast to coast by automobile through the Rocky Mountains, at a time when there were few paved roads. The trip took a month. She preceded her husband in death by many years.
  • Speaking of the song mentioned above, Herbert Hoover was not related to longtime FBI director J. Edgar Hoover.
  • Those who are old enough might also recall Hoover being affectionately recalled in “Those Were the Days,” the theme song for the long-running TV show “All in the Family.”
  • He had a brother and a sister.
  • He was a hard worker.
  • He smoked lots and lots of cigars.
  • He was bad at spelling.
  • He had a habit of jangling coins in his pocket.
  • He enjoyed fishing in the Florida Keys, always while wearing a jacket and tie!
  • Also not related to longtime White House usher Ike Hoover.
  • Also, there was no connection to the vacuum cleaner.
  • But the Hoover Dam, however, is named after the 31st President.
  • He founded the Hoover Institution at Stanford.
  • He also invented a game, called Hooverball, in which he would throw a medicine ball with colleagues on White House grounds, for exercise.
  • He was in China during the Boxer Rebellion.
  • He was not implicated in any of the scandals that befell the Harding administration.
  • He was uncomfortable with ceremonial duties, and he was not good at face-to-face interactions with the general public, or at working crowds.
  • He wrote many books, the most notable of which included “The Ordeal of Woodrow Wilson,” about the Paris peace conference after World War I.

And that’s Herbert Hoover. Before reading Whyte’s excellent biography, I knew almost nothing about the man. I found his life to be absolutely fascinating. As the author pointed out, Herbert Hoover knew every president from Theodore Roosevelt to Richard Nixon and served under five of them, both Democratic and Republican, in addition to his own term in the White House.

Even more importantly, the author estimates that during his lifetime Hoover saved 100 million lives, through his humanitarian work during and after World War I and later after the Mississippi flood of 1927. That’s something to admire. I am so glad I took the time to learn more about this important American and his many achievements.

Herbert Hoover (Library of Congress photo)

 

The electoral college results in 1928 show Hoover winning in a landslide over Smith.

 

The electoral college results in 1932 show Hoover defeated in a landslide by FDR.

 

Calvin Coolidge

Imagine living in an era in which there is rampant speculation in the stock market, which keeps going up and up. There is almost no government regulation, which allows “stockjobbers” to concoct various get-rich-quick schemes, while investors are allowed to place large trades on margin. The economy seems to be doing well, yet interest rates are being lowered and tariffs are being increased, causing an imbalance in global trade. In just four years, there have been three rounds of massive tax cuts. The rich keep getting richer, and everyone else — well, they get to reap the benefits of trickle-down economics. Among the most vulnerable are the nation’s farmers, who are saddled with debt while crop prices fluctuate wildly. But hey, look at that stock market! It keeps going up and up and up! What could possibly go wrong?

Calvin Coolidge, a Republican, was the 30th President of the United States, serving through much of what is now known as the Roaring Twenties. One of his nicknames was “Silent Cal,” because he was sort of a do-nothing president who didn’t seem to care for much more than keeping up appearances. He was not an activist leader who roused people to action. He is what would be called today a small-government conservative. When the Mississippi River flooded in 1927, causing widespread devastation and suffering, the Coolidge administration did almost nothing to help. Coolidge occasionally spoke out in favor of civil rights, but he did not do anything heroic. To his credit, he is not known to have appointed any overt racists to positions of power.

In 1928 Coolidge attended a Pan-American conference in Cuba, where he encountered much resentment toward the United States over intervention in Nicaragua, Haiti and the Dominican Republic. He attempted to normalize relations with Mexico, which was undergoing revolution and much political upheaval. Coolidge approved the Dawes Plan, which was designed to defuse the German debt crisis that had lingered after World War I. In coming years Germany would fall into an economic tailspin of its own, with devastating consequences for the entire world.

Coolidge, a lawyer, got his start in local politics in Massachusetts in 1909, when he was elected mayor of Northampton. He then became lieutenant Governor and then Governor of Massachusetts. Shortly after he became governor, the police officers in Boston went on strike and Coolidge fired them all. This action brought Coolidge to national prominence as an enforcer of law and order and as one who would stand up against communism. The Bolshevik revolution had just taken place in Russia, and there was already a “red scare” in the United States!

Coolidge’s newly minted national reputation landed him on the Republican ticket in the election of 1920, as Warren G. Harding’s running mate, and he became president in 1923 when Harding died in office. Coolidge was elected to a full term in his own right in 1924, with 54 percent of the popular vote. He declared that he did not think anyone should serve more than two terms as president and declined to seek re-election in 1928. Just six months after he left office in 1929, with Republican successor Herbert Hoover in the White House, the economy began to unravel, ushering in the worst economic crisis our nation had ever experienced. Coolidge died in 1933 at age 60.

Here are some additional facts about Calvin Coolidge:

  • He was born in Vermont.
  • He was religious.
  • He married Grace Goodhue and they had two sons, John and Calvin Jr., the younger of whom died while Coolidge was in office, after getting a blister while playing tennis on White House grounds. The blister became infected, and antibiotics had not yet been developed for treatment of infections.
  • Coolidge mastered the art of the photo opp, appearing frequently in newspapers, magazines and newsreels. Edward Bernays, who would become known as the “father of public relations,” was an advisor, as was Bruce Fairchild Barton, an advertising executive.
  • Coolidge was the first president to appear talking on film.
  • During the Coolidge presidency Charles Lindbergh made his historic solo flight across the Atlantic, returning home and hailed as a hero.
  • With radio broadcasting an emerging technology, Coolidge signed legislation regulating the nation’s airwaves.
  • As president, Coolidge also signed anti-immigration legislation into law.
  • In the aftermath of the Great Depression, Coolidge’s economic philosophy (if you could even call it that) would be discredited for many decades, only to be resurrected by Ronald Reagan, who admired Coolidge and hung up his portrait in the White House.

Today’s book report is on “Calvin Coolidge” by David Greenberg, another in the American Presidents series. This was a quick, concise read. I would have preferred a longer book, but I was not able to find a better one. After reading the introduction to the best-selling biography by Amity Shlaes, I had to put it down because it was so over-the-top laudatory (in my view) that I wanted to barf.

Despite the short length of the Greenberg biography, I did find that it covered the bases quite well. I was particularly impressed with Greenberg’s thoughtful analysis at the end, in which he points out the various economic warning signs that existed during Coolidge’s administration. But he also concedes, quite fairly, that nobody back then, not even the president, could have predicted the future.